The Delaware Bayshore in Cumberland County is a beautifully natural and environmentally valuable region. It also once was a thriving part of South Jersey’s fishing industry.
But much of the action in that lucrative industry moved to deeper ocean ports long ago. About a dozen historic bayshore fishing villages disappeared.
Five villages hang on, barely, in Downe Township, where about 1,500 people reside within its almost 50 square miles. Thanks to federal, state and county efforts to help modernize their infrastructure, it looks like at least two of them will survive.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently told the township it will grant it $4.5 million to help construct a sewage system to serve its towns of Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach.
The rural and poor township never joined the modern era of sewage treatment systems, so its residents and businesses have had to rely on septic tanks. Those put some human waste into the ground, dispersing it over a sufficient area to hopefully filter it, give it time to biodegrade and not contaminate ground water.
Septic tanks don’t work as well in the kind of low-lying and small lots found in Downe. Some have failed. In 2012, the state tightened its regulation of septic systems and since then the Department of Environmental Protection and the county health department have pressed the township to work toward changing to sewage treatment.
The project is expected to cost $15.9 million. The federal grant adds to funding lined up last year that included a $2.5 million DEP grant, another $2.5 million granted by the federal Department of Agriculture, and a $1.5 million low-interest USDA loan. The county is expected to help bond for the local share of the cost.
Downe Township Mayor Robert Campbell has said the sewerage system “will make Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach sustainable and resilient.”
In addition to the environmental benefit of treating sewage, the system will give residents and businesses confidence to remain or locate in the township. With its beautiful setting, historic flavor and proximity to the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the waterfront villages could see an increase in investment and property values.
Last year, the founder of the Bayshore Center and chairwoman of the Delaware Bayshore Council, Meghan Wren, called the planned treatment plant in Fortescue “critical to the economy and well being of the community” and its funding “awesome news.” She only wished that a village with a still-thriving fishing port, Money Island, was included.
The DEP, however, insisted that Money Island be removed from the original project plans, citing repeated claims of flood losses there. The “island” between wetlands and bay has been targeted by the department’s Blue Acres program to acquire and demolish repeatedly flooding homes.
Since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the federal and state governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding and protecting far more affluent areas along the Atlantic coast. It’s good to see officials at all levels make an effort, even one much more modest, to help people along the historic and more natural other shore of New Jersey.